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Upper Deck of Freeway Falls; Scores Killed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A mile-long stretch of an elevated double-decked freeway in Oakland toppled in Tuesday’s earthquake, crushing to death at least 58 motorists in their vehicles and injuring 400 others. Alameda County sheriff’s officials said the death toll could reach 200.

“It just sandwiched in,” said Henry Renteria, manager of emergency services for Oakland. “It’s like a war zone out there.”

The collapse of the 14-block section occurred at peak rush hour on the Nimitz Freeway--Interstate 880--on its approach to the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The upper deck fell like a pancake onto the lower level, showering motorists below with falling cars and heavy rubble and mangling the piers between the decks. Cars on the city streets below were also hit: a Volkswagen van was literally flattened by blocks falling from overhead. Renteria said at least 200 vehicles were crunched by debris.

Daren Lasky, an emergency medical technician, said that “80% to 90% of those trapped in their cars” on the bottom layer of the freeway were dead. Officials said most of the motorists on the upper layer survived. But not all. A rental van was heaved through the air onto the side of the road by the buckling asphalt, its entire cab ripped off. Not far from the truck was the body of its driver, covered with a yellow blanket.

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Because of the danger posed by spilled gasoline from the crushed cars, work proceeded slowly into the night with hand tools. Authorities said they feared electric power tools would cause sparks and set off the fumes.

“This (Nimitz Freeway) is a major artery to the bridge, and it was high commuter traffic at the time,” he said. “Many of the people were probably heading to the (World Series) ballgame.”

Rescue workers with cranes, jackhammers and other heavy equipment worked frantically throughout the night to extricate the injured and dying from the rock and rubble while a helicopter overhead provided light.

“They are cutting and digging,” Oakland’s emergency manager said. “The critical time is three hours after the event when you have injuries where people are crushed and there’s a lot of bleeding.”

Andy Groeneveld of the Alameda Naval Air Station Fire Department said stranded victims were honking their horns for help in crawl space only 2 to 4 feet high between the two freeway layers. “But we couldn’t get in there to help them,” he said, adding that 35 cars were trapped in one 300-yard section. At one stage, one man was found still breathing, but an aftershock sent rescuers running. “By the time we got back in, he wasn’t breathing,” Groeneveld said.

“At one point we heard a baby crying,” he said. “But we couldn’t get to it so we had to leave it.” Then he looked away and added, “Everybody’s just doing the best they can.”

Private contractors rushed to the scene to volunteer their own heavy equipment to assist official rescue teams. An emergency medical treatment center was set up nearby, and ambulances raced the injured to nearby hospitals and carried the dead to temporary morgues. Stranded motorists were being cared for in an emergency center set up by the Red Cross.

About two miles away, another roadway leading onto the Bay Bridge from Oakland was torn and crumbled, and part was under water. A crack 100 yards long and 12 inches wide split the road right up to the bridge’s toll booths.

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California Highway Patrol officials counted 58 dead from the Nimitz Freeway collapse by 10:30 p.m. Tom Mullins, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said another 400 were injured. Renteria said the numbers were growing throughout the night. “They are carrying them out of there bleeding with cuts and bruises and broken bones,” he said. “Some are alive, some are dead.” He added that “hundreds” may have been injured.

Three of Oakland’s hospitals closest to the freeway collapse were in pandemonium as a steady stream of injured arrived by ambulance, and panicked relatives of victims looked for their loved ones. “It is total chaos,” said Judy Sullivan, nursing coordinator at Providence Hospital in Oakland. “There is lots of blood and guts here. There are at least 50 people admitted and a lot more in the emergency room. . . .

“They said they were in their cars and were hit by other cars, and also hit by debris. Things fell on them. They got it from all sides. There are all kinds of injuries; you name it, we’ve got it.”

Phyllis Brown, a spokeswoman at Highland Hospital, said it had admitted 25 victims, five of them with trauma injuries that required surgery. “We have set up special stations,” she said. “There are staff to help family find their loved ones. Nursing pools are on call. Calm is not a word I would use to describe this picture.”

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She said all staff members who could make it back to the hospital had returned for duty. Some had been trapped in San Francisco by the collapse of one of the Bay Bridge sections.

Gerrie Shields, spokeswoman for Merritt Peralta Medical Center, said paramedics were bringing in injured throughout the night. Ten had been admitted to the hospital within two hours after the earthquake, and another 28 were being treated for a variety of injuries in the emergency room. Most of the injured suffered broken bones and bruises.

Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley admitted a patient with a broken back suffered in the Nimitz Freeway collapse. The scene at the hospital was made even more chaotic by a ruptured gas line that forced the evacuation of 37 psychiatric and rehabilitation patients at the hospital’s nearby Herrick unit.

Maura Dolan reported from Los Angeles. Douglas Shuit reported from Oakland.

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Times staff writers John Balzar, Glenn F. Bunting, Stephanie Chavez, Steven Churm, Frank Clifford, Rich Connell, Darrell Dawsey, Virginia Ellis, Paul Feldman, Jerry Gillam, Phillip Hager, Paul Jacobs, Maria La Ganga, John H. Lee, Carol McGraw, Myrna Oliver, Rick Paddock, Judy Pasternak, Jeffrey L. Rabin, Douglas Shuit, George Skelton, Ronald L. Soble, Larry B. Stammer, Ronald B. Taylor, Lois Timnick, William Trombley, Jennifer Warren, Dan Weikel, Daniel M. Weintraub, Tracy Wood and Victor Zonana contributed to this report. Also contributing were researchers Ann Rovin and Tracy Thomas.


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